Ukraine, especially, and the European Union (EU) are sometimes inclined to see a terrible nightmare before them.
What if, in November 2024, American voters elect a president to the White House who decides to halt support to Kyiv, or even drastically reduces US participation in NATO? The electoral uncertainties and the show of disunity in the House of Representatives in recent weeks, as well as the risk of rising domestic tensions, should the war in the Middle East spread, are only fueling such dark thoughts.
President Biden’s latest package of substantial aid to Ukraine, particularly his tough words on Russia, and the first arrivals of longer-range ATACMS missiles have, at least for a while, eased criticism that the US administration’s commitment is still too limited to enable total victory. Even so, some are questioning whether Americans will see Russian defeat through to the end, both there and elsewhere.
An increase in internal protests, and the actions of some Republican elected representatives apparently sensitive to the Kremlin’s narratives, could shatter what appears to be a new momentum, partly linked to a better perception of what this author has termed called Moscow’s horizontal war.
Should such a disaster unfold, Europe would not be ready to replace the United States. It could certainly take steps to strengthen its defense potential, deploy all the resources of lawfare to try to meet the additional challenges to international law that a victory by Trump or one of his look-alikes would pose, and strengthen its economic and social cohesion — it should even start today, as this author has suggested.
But even if Europe were to enter a war economy in the full sense of the term, as President Macron suggested in June 2022, it would still be more than a decade before it could acquire the conventional military potential of the United States. If we were to add to this the US nuclear deterrent potential, the basis of the global deterrence set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the defense expenditure of each European state would have to amount, according to some estimates, to 6% or 7% of GDP, from the current 2%. Needless to say, neither the governments nor the public would be keen to do so, especially given the concomitant need for cuts in areas like social support and health.
It is therefore far from certain that Europe alone, even when including the UK and Norway, could withstand high-intensity conventional aggression from Russia. France, whose nuclear strike force is independent, would have to drastically revise its nuclear doctrine, and London, whose deterrent is integrated into NATO (and currently being updated at a cost of around $38bn) , would have to do the same.
The first sacrifice would be Ukraine. Moldova’s future as a free country would also be in doubt, as would the long-term about the security of the Baltic states, and even of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The Balkans could once again become a hotbed of war. The South Caucasus would again fall under the Kremlin’s control, with Georgian resistance quickly broken, and Armenia’s desire for independence from its former colonial power nipped in the bud.
The debate on European strategic autonomy, conceived here not as a loosening of the transatlantic link but as the ability to act if Washington refuses to do so, is logically resurfacing in Europe. But while it is vital for the EU to considerably strengthen its defense effort, full strategic autonomy seems illusory in the medium term.
Paradoxically, it may even decline if the United States withdraws. Feeling helpless in the face of Russian and Chinese threats, some countries may be tempted to go the other way. Unable to resist these dangers alone, i.e. without America, centrifugal tendencies within the EU could grow stronger.
Since the launch of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the unity of the Atlantic alliance and the commitment of the United States — whatever its limits otherwise — have been the leavening of the EU’s unity; the bloc knew it was supported and protected.
In the event of an American failure, certain member states could tragically seek to save their skins by rushing back to Moscow’s embrace. Cracks are already appearing, with some countries — notably Hungary, Austria, Greece, and perhaps Slovakia in the future — failing to apply sanctions in full, hesitating to seize the frozen assets of the Russian Central Bank in particular, and reluctant to commit to secondary sanctions in particular.
This would herald a catastrophic return to the situation before the start of Russia’s all-out war. It would also heighten the insecurity of the European continent, beyond Ukraine alone, as Russia has launched a multi-dimensional attack.
The picture is bleak, and it is undoubtedly realistic. For now, there is a window of opportunity of a few months for the Biden administration, during which it must do everything in its power to avert the worst risks.
First of all, it must continue along the path laid out by President Biden’s Oval Office speech on October 19. In concrete terms, this means going all the way, not just in defending Kyiv, but defeating Russia. The risks would be lower with a completely defeated Russia than if Moscow still had the means to make war. What is at stake here is not only saving Ukrainian lives but also establishing a ratchet effect from which there can be no turning back.
Secondly, without waiting for the July 2024 NATO summit in Washington, the US should accelerate Ukraine’s accession to the Washington Treaty organization, and if possible full membership. Here too, it would be difficult for another US administration, if Joe Biden were not re-elected, to call this achievement into question. Such an evolution should also apply to Moldavia. At the same time, to counter Iran, Moscow’s partner of choice in destabilizing the world, they will need to forge a new global policy for the Middle East, and not just Israel, a policy that has been absent for too long.
Lastly, the US would greatly enhance its international legitimacy by becoming a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This would put it in a stronger position to advocate full justice for Russian figures guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of genocide in Ukraine.
The United States is no longer the only solution to the acts of aggression committed by the revisionist powers, but it remains necessary for any solution. It remains an indispensable power.
President Biden has begun to publicly acknowledge what American power obliges. He will have to draw the consequences quickly. This would certainly also be a political asset for the upcoming elections. A total victory in Ukraine, in particular, would be of considerable benefit to him domestically too.
Nicolas Tenzer is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Chairman of the Center for Studies and Research on Political Decision (CERAP). He is currently a guest professor at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA, Sciences-Po), and a blogger on Tenzer Strategics, a blog on international security and foreign policy issues (100 long-reads published to date). He is a former director of the online journal Desk Russie.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.